Saving the Language of the People

A Texas Tech linguist begins a journey to preserve and teach the Comanche language.

Jeff Williams

Linguist Jeff Williams sits among his collection of Native American artifacts.

A Texas Tech University professor of anthropology has begun the difficult task of collecting the remnants of the near-extinct Comanche language, then creating a way it can be taught in a university setting.

Jeff Williams, chairman of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, will serve as an external evaluator for Numu Tekwapu, a project to document and revitalize the Comanche language. He will work with tribe members and researchers at Comanche Nation College in Lawton, Okla., to record what’s left of the language and create a method for teaching it to students at the college.

The project is funded through a $215,000 competitive grant awarded to Comanche Nation College from the Administration for Native Americans, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A Language Perilously Close to Extinction

“The Comanche language is nearly dead,” Williams said. “Of the 13,000 people on the tribe’s enrollment, we had, at last estimate, 20 to 25 speakers. Kids aren’t learning it anymore. Part of my task is to create a digital archive of what we know of Comanche, the other is to use technology and devise a way to teach college students the language.”

He attributed the language’s demise to the fact that Comanche, Kiowa and Apache tribes lost their reservations in the Oklahoma Indian Territory at the turn of the 20th century. Instead, they received allotments that interspersed Anglos and other non-Indians within what had been Indian Country. Also, generations of Comanche children were sent to boarding schools where they were reprogrammed, often violently, to assimilate to white culture. This created a “lost generation,” disrupting the flow of the tribe’s culture and language.

Voiceless Vowels

Comanche is a complex, relatively recent offshoot of the Shoshoni language that developed as the tribe splintered and moved south from their homelands in the Great Basin region of the United States, Williams said.

The language, a branch of the vast Uto-Aztecan languages, was passed on orally and didn’t have its own writing system until 1994. Of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages, it’s one of a handful possessing “voiceless vowels.” In written Comanche, these voiceless vowels are represented with underlining and are almost inaudible when spoken.

Williams couldn’t say exactly how much of the Comanche language has already disappeared because no records exist of it while it was still in use. He compares it to New Mexico’s Zuni language, which is still used and undergoing a preservation process, but has lost much of its more formal speaking patterns.

“If we look at the Zuni language, it’s estimated that it had about seven different speech levels,” he said. “The first level was the most informal and the seventh was the highest, most formal and sacred way to speak. The top four or five levels of speech are completely lost. Most people only speak in the lowest registers, which would have been the most vernacular style of speaking. It would not signal honor or respect for elders or those who possessed specialized knowledge or skills.

Taking Action Before More is Lost

“There’s no telling how much of the Comanche language is lost. And as speakers get older, they begin to forget and use less of it.”

Todd McDaniels, assistant professor of linguistics at Comanche Nation College, serves as project director. He said the project was spurred by a need for Comanche language learning materials that are educationally sound, organized according to a curriculum based on outcomes, and capable of serving accreditation interests.

The resulting product will be a series of interactive, computer-assisted Comanche language learning modules that require that students match audio of spoken Comanche with selections of pictures without reliance on translation, he said.

“We're basically starting at square one,” McDaniels said. “The purpose of the current project is to help develop Comanche speaking skills in students. Everything is ‘sit down and crack your knuckles’ type of work. We will need to work hard to develop interest, enthusiasm and goodwill within the Comanche community, most especially with native Comanche speakers.”

Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work

Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work

The Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work is a multi-disciplinary unit for those interested in the human condition at home and abroad, in the present and in the past, theoretically and practically speaking.

Degree options include:

Bachelor of Arts

  • Anthropology
  • Social Work
  • Sociology

Master of Arts

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology

The department participates in the Latin American and Iberian Studies program leading to the Bachelor of Arts degree. The department also participates in the womens studies, urban studies, ethnic studies, environmental studies, family life studies, religion studies, Asian studies, and substance abuse studies minor programs.

Editor's Note

The phrase Numu Tekwapu in this story features a strikethrough on the last u of Numu and a strikethrough and  underline on the last u in Tekwapu.

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